Saturday, May 17, 2008

On Turning 50

Living for half a century certainly makes me pause, if only to catch my breath. It isn't as if I have arrived at this mile marker at a sprint or even at a jog. Indeed, it's almost as if the marker has passed me. If I were to say "I am out of shape" this curious statement assumes there is a shape to which I am expected to conform. And if I say "I have let myself go," then when exactly did I lose my grip? I haven't experienced any "mid-life crisis", even if I were capable of distinguishing it from the general crisis which I have been in since I reached manhood. My life has consisted in unequal measure of astonishments and disasters, of somehow finding myself mometarily in flight without wings only to suffer the inevitable crash as soon as logic appeared to reassert that such a thing was physically impossible. At such moments, it is no comfort to discover that logic is nonsense and that I am more than mere flesh and hollow bone.

When I admit to not having anticipated living to 50, then what alternative did I expect? My sister Virginia, whom I always called Dea, certainly didn't expect to die at 40 of cancer. And two of my favorite 20th-century authors, George Orwell and Albert Camus, were both four birthdays short of 50 when they died at the height of their powers. Yukio Mishima decided to publicly disembowel himself at 45 before he would allow his body, that he had worked so hard to beautify, know anything of the decay or betrayal of age. Since physical beauty eluded me during the crucial years when it could've made a difference, I have been spared the spectacle of watching my body sag and fail. When Barbara Walters told Robert Redford after The Way We Were was released that he could have any woman he wanted, he said "Where were they when I needed them?"

The author of one of the most moving birthday poems in English, Dylan Thomas, keeled over just shy of his 40th year:


It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
And the mussel pooled and the heron
Priested shore
The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the webbed wall
Myself to set foot
That second
In the still sleeping town and set forth.

My birthday began with the water-
Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
Above the farms and the white horses
And I rose
In a rainy autumn
And walked abroad in shower of all my days
High tide and the heron dived when I took the road
Over the border
And the gates
Of the town closed as the town awoke.

A springful of larks in a rolling
Cloud and the roadside bushes brimming with whistling
Blackbirds and the sun of October
On the hill's shoulder,
Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly
Come in the morning where I wandered and listened
To the rain wringing
Wind blow cold
In the wood faraway under me.

Pale rain over the dwindling harbour
And over the sea wet church the size of a snail
With its horns through mist and the castle
Brown as owls
But all the gardens
Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales
Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud.
There could I marvel
My birthday
Away but the weather turned around.

It turned away from the blithe country
And down the other air and the blue altered sky
Streamed again a wonder of summer
With apples
Pears and red currants
And I saw in the turning so clearly a child's
Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
Through the parables
Of sunlight
And the legends of the green chapels

And the twice told fields of infancy
That his tears burned my cheeks and his heart moved in mine.
These were the woods the river and the sea
Where a boy
In the listening
Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy
To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide.
And the mystery
Sang alive
Still in the water and singing birds.

And there could I marvel my birthday
Away but the weather turned around. And the true
Joy of the long dead child sang burning
In the sun.
It was my thirtieth
Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.
O may my heart's truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year's turning.

What more could any of us wish for, that we should still be singing our heart's truth next year on Llareggub (Buggerall) Hill? Then why do I prefer Philip Larkin's reading of the gentle exhortation of trees?

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread;
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

But that was Larkin on a good day. One is never far from the mood you find in these other lines by Larkin:

I Have Started to Say

I have started to say
"A quarter of a century"
Or "thirty years back"
About my own life.

It makes me breathless
It's like falling and recovering
In huge gesturing loops
Through an empty sky.

All that's left to happen
Is some deaths (my own included).
Their order, and their manner,
Remain to be learnt.

Perhaps this is why all of my friends and wives are at least a decade younger than me?